Daydream Nation (***)

Buoyed by the best performance in the young career of Kat Dennings, Daydream Nation is an offbeat romantic drama that really wants to be a quirky romantic comedy, but can’t quite pull it off.  Writer/director Michael Goldbach is trying to do way too many things here, and this odd mish-mash of genres and tones only works because of Dennings.  The entire cast is good, but she’s something special here.

Her work elevates and saves the film, which is flawed but very likable.  Without her, it would have just been an interesting failure.  Any movie that wants to mix Juno with Donnie Darko had better be up to the task, and it really isn’t fully.  I like the movie, but I’m very cognizant of its issues.

When Caroline Wexler (Dennings) moves to a new town with her father, she sees it as a chance to reinvent herself.  The school is filled with unappealing stoners, so she decides to make herself into a seductress and begin an affair with a teacher.  Though initial resistant, Mr. Anderson (Josh Lucas) eventually goes full bore into it, though always aware of the danger.  His paranoia has him encourage Caroline to see a boy her own age at the same time, assuming it will just be cover.  She chooses Thurston Goldberg (Reece Thompson), a stoner who’s head over heels for her.  As she slowly comes to like him, Mr. Anderson starts to get jealous, throwing Caroline into a bit of a love triangle.  All the while, she goes about her life commenting on the horrid nature of the town in a uniquely sarcastic tone.  Oh, and there’s also a serial killer offing kids every so often…

Dennings is beautiful, intelligent, and sassy, and the character is full of depth.  Her sarcasm works as an obvious shield, and when it comes down, we get to really see what’s going on in her head.  Her work anchors the film, including the narration that is a bit on the unique side.  Lucas is very good as well, taking the role in a different direction than you’d expect him to.  Thompson starts out as just a loser, but his role evolves effectively, and it’s more a credit to his performance than anything else.  There are small roles for Andie MacDowell and Rachel Blanchard, among others, but no one matches Kat Dennings in the least.

A solid director in need of someone to help focus his script, Goldbach has too much on his plate.  The killer subplot is pointless, as are some of the odder bits of the film.  He seems to be trying to make the lighthearted teen movie that David Lynch never made, and the end result is just a bit off.  To be fair, there are some really clever lines thrown into the script, but they don’t show up consistently enough to not feel out of place.  The pacing is also rather uneven, making the 98 minute movie feel longer than that.  He’s a good director of actors though, and it’s a good thing too, as the film would have sank without the work he gets out of Dennings.

If I seem somewhat unenthusiastic in my praise/recommendation of Daydream Nation, it’s only because it’s a decent movie bumped up to a good one by Kat Dennings and her excellent performance.  I can’t say enough about what she did here.  It’s unique in all the right ways.  Had the focus of the flick been a little different, there could have been a really could quirky dramedy here.  It’s not though, but it’s still enough to get a tepid recommendation from me.  I’d say to see the movie if only for Dennings, but that sells her work short.  The movie is fine, but she’s exceptional.